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Survival skills are techniques a person may use for an indefinite duration to survive a dangerous situation (also see bushcraft). Generally speaking, these techniques are meant to provide the basic necessities for human life: fire, water, food, shelter, habitat, and the need to think straight, to signal for help, to navigate safely, to avoid unpleasant interactions with animals and plants, and for first aid. In addition, survival skills are often basic ideas and abilities that ancient humans had to use for thousands of years, so these skills are partially a reenactment of history. Many of these skills are the ways to enjoy extended periods of time in remote places, or a way to thrive in nature. Some people use these skills to better appreciate nature and for recreation, not just survival.

Such skills are presented as useful in situations such as storms or earthquakes or in dangerous locations such as desert, mountains, and jungle. Every different situation or location is said to present a different range of dangers - (see hazards of outdoor activities). Techniques to fit most situations are suggested by sources on the topic.

Secondary sources on survival skills, including those produced by the United States Army, and the Boy Scouts of America (priorities for an individual or group in a survival situation) , formulate lists of needs to be met for survival.

The needs for survival are differently conceptualized between sources; they may give six, or seven, or ten "needs" or "priorities." Furthermore, those sources often differ as to the relative priority of survival needs in a given survival situation. Some sources expressly acknowledge what seems manifest: that the order of priority of survival needs shifts according to the immediate situation faced.

One widely circulated concept to help set priorities is called the "Rule of Three": Employed a mnemonic device, the Rule of Three states:
  1. Humans cannot survive more than three hours exposed to extremely low temperatures.
  2. Humans cannot survive more than three days without water.
  3. Humans cannot survive more than three weeks without food.

The Rule of Three is often otherwise formulated and is viewed by commentators as a rough guide. An aircrew reportedly lasted 8 days without water in a liferaft . People have survived without food for over twenty-one days.

In 1998, Alaskan fireman Robert Bogucki survived for 12 days without water and 36 days without food in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australiamarker,

The Boy Scouts, in addition to listing seven priorities, use a mnemonic device, "STOP", to address the mental aspects of survival. "STOP" stands for "Stop, Think, Observe, Plan."


Shelter is any thing that protects a person from his/her environment, including dangerous cold and heat and allow restful sleep, another human need.

A shelter can range from a "natural shelter"; such as a cave or a fallen-down (cracked but not split) thickly-foliaged tree, to an intermediate form of man-made shelter such as a debris shelter, a ditch dug next to a tree log and covered with foliage, or a snow cave, to completely man-made structures such as a tarp, tent, or house.


The ability to start a controlled fire is recognized in the sources as to significantly increase the ability to survive. The skills required to light a fire without a lighter or matches, such as by using natural flint and steel with tinder, is a frequent subject of both books on survival and in survival courses. There is an emphasis placed on practicing fire-making skills before venturing into the wilderness.

Fire is presented as a tool meeting many survival needs. The heat provided by a fire allows the body to be warmed, wet clothes to be dried, water to be disinfected, and food to be cooked. Not to be overlooked is the psychological boost and the sense of safety and protection it gives. Fire may deter wild animals from interfering with the survivor, or wild animals may be attracted to the light and heat of a fire. The light and smoke emitted by a fire can also be used to work at night and can signal rescue units.


A human being can survive an average of three to five days without the intake of water, assuming sea-level altitude, room temperature and favorable relative humidity. In colder or warmer temperatures, the need for water is greater. Need for water also increases with exercise.

A typical person will lose 2-3 litres of water per day under ordinary conditions, and more in hot, dry, or cold weather. Four to six litres of water or other liquids are generally required each day in the wilderness to avoid dehydration and to keep the body functioning properly. The U.S. Army survival manual recommends that you drink water whenever thirsty. Other groups recommend rationing water through "water discipline".

A lack of water causes dehydration, which may result in lethargy, headaches, dizziness, confusion, and eventually death. Even mild dehydration reduces endurance and impairs concentration, which is dangerous in a survival situation where clear thinking is essential. Dark yellow or brown urine is a diagnostic indicator of dehydration. To avoid dehydration, a high priority is typically assigned to locating a supply of drinking water and making provision to render that water as safe as possible.

Many sources in survival literature, as well as forums and online references, list the ways in which water may be gathered and rendered safer for consumption in a survival situation, such as boiling, filtering, chemicals, solar radiation + heat/SODIS, and distillation. Such sources also often list the dangers, such as pollutants, microorganisms, or pathogens which affect the safety of backcountry water.

Recent thinking is that boiling or commercial filters are significantly safer than use of chemicals, with the exception of chlorine dioxide.

The issues presented by the need for water dictate that unnecessary water loss by perspiration be avoided in survival situations.


Most commentators note that food is, as a general rule, not urgently needed in survival situations, because a human can survive for several weeks without it. However, they also note that in extreme cold lack of food can be dangerous, and in other situations hunger, like gradual dehydration, can bring about many consequences long before it causes death, such as:

  • Irritability and low morale
  • Weakness
  • Loss of mental clarity, such as confusion, disorientation, or poor judgment
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increasing difficulty maintaining body temperature (see Heat exhaustion and Hypothermia)

To thus avoid these problems, culinary root tuber, fruit, edible mushrooms, edible nuts, edible beans, edible cereals or edible leaves, edible moss, edible cacti and algae can be searched and if needed, prepared (mostly by boiling). With the exception of leaves, these foods are relatively high in calories, providing some energy to the body. Plants are some of the easiest food sources to find in the jungle, forest or desert because they're stationary and can thus be had without exerting much effort.

Also, many commentators discuss the knowledge, skills, and equipment (such as bows, snares and nets) necessary to gather animal food in the wild through animal trapping, hunting, fishing..

Some survival books promote the "Universal Edibility Test". Allegedly, one can distinguish edible foods from toxic ones by a series of progressive exposures to skin and mouth prior to ingestion, with waiting periods and checks for symptoms. However, many other experts including Ray Mears and John Kallas reject this method, stating that even a small amount of some "potential foods" can cause physical discomfort, illness, or death. An additional step called the scratch test is sometimes included to evaluate the edibility of a potential food.

Focusing on survival until rescued by presumed searchers, The Boy Scouts of America especially discourages foraging for wild foods on the grounds that the knowledge and skills needed are unlikely to be possessed by those finding themselves in a wilderness survival situation, making the risks (including use of energy) outweigh the benefits.

First aid

First aid (wilderness first aid in particular) can help a person survive and function with injuries and illnesses that would otherwise kill or incapacitate him/her. Common and dangerous injuries include:

The survivor may need to apply the contents of a first aid kit or, if possessing the required knowledge, naturally-occurring medicinal plants, immobilize injured limbs, or even transport incapacitated comrades.


Survival situations are sometimes resolved by finding one's way to safety, or one may need to move to find a more suitable location to wait for rescue. The sources observe that to do either of these safely requires some navigation equipment and skills. Types of navigation include:

  • Celestial navigation, using the sun and the night sky to locate the cardinal directions and to maintain course of travel
  • Using a map and compass together, particularly a topographic map
  • "Navigation by observation" of terrain features on a map or otherwise known
  • Using a GPS receiver, if one is available

Other survival skills

Several other skills are often referenced as being desirable or necessary. These include proficiency with firearms, climbing and mountaineering techniques, making rope from readily available material, making rafts or boats, knot tying, knife usage, and basic toolmaking. Of these, familiarity with the use of a knife is usually paramount as the knife may be used to build shelter, process material for fire-building, create wood tools, and for defense.


Survival training has many components, mental competence and physical fitness being two. Mental competence includes the skills listed in this article, as well as the ability to admit the existence of a crisis, overcome panic, and think clearly. Physical fitness includes, among other abilities, carrying loads over long distances on rough terrain. Theoretical knowledge of survival skills is useful only if it can be applied effectively in the wilderness. Almost all Survival Skills are environment specific and require training in a particular environment.

Survival training may be broken down into three types, or schools; Modern Wilderness Survival, Bushcraft, and Primitive Survival Techniques.

Modern Wilderness Survival teaches the skills needed to survive Short-Term (1 to 4 Days) and Medium-Term (4 to 40 Days) survival situations.

"Bushcraft" is the combination of Modern Wilderness Survival and useful Primitive Survival Techniques. It normally splits its skill acquisition between Medium-Term Survival Techniques (4 to 40 Days) and Long-Term Survival Techniques (40 Days Plus).

Primitive Survival Techniques or "Primitive Living" teaches the skills needed to survive over the Long-Term (40 days plus). Many primitive technology skills require much more practice and may be more environment specific.

Several organizations offer wilderness survival training. Course ranges from one day to field courses lasting as long as a month. In addition to teaching survival techniques for conditions of limited food, water, and shelter, many organizations that teach bushcraft and Primitive Survival seek to engender appreciation and understanding of the lifestyles of pre-industrialized cultures.

There are several books that teach one how to survive in dangerous situations, and schools train children what to do in the event of an earthquake or fire. Some cities also have contingency plans in case of a major disaster, such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

Mental preparedness

Commentators note that the mind and its processes are critical to survival. It is said that the will to live in a life and death situation often separates those that live and those that do not. Stories of heroic feats of survival by regular people with little or no training but a strong will to live are not uncommon. Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why describes the story of a young teenage girl named Juliane Köpcke who is the victim of a plane crash in the Amazon jungle. With no formal training and wearing only her confirmation clothes, she walked through the jungle for several days with parasitic insects boring under her skin. After eleven days, with very little food, she reached a hut and collapsed inside. Three hunters found her the next day and took her to a local doctor. Of those who survived the crash, she was the only one to make it out alive. Gonzales believes that her simple and indestructible will to live made the difference.

So stressful is a true survival situation, that those who appear to have a clear understanding of the stressors, even trained experts, are said to be mentally affected by facing deadly peril.

It seems that, to the extent that stress results from testing human limits, the benefits of learning to function under stress and determining those limits may outweigh the downside of stress. After all, stress is a natural reaction to adverse circumstances, developed by evolution to assist in survival - at least, in terms of brief, perilous encounters (such as being caught in the middle of a natural disaster, or being attacked by a wild animal.) If stress lingers for a prolonged period of time, it tends to produce the opposite effect, impeding one's ability to survive. In particular, the commentators note the following adverse effects of stress: forgetfulness, inability to sleep, increased propensity to make mistakes, lessened energy, outbursts of rage, and carelessness. None of these symptoms would seem to make survival easier or more likely.

E.B. Motley contends that being faced with a need to survive, there are seven emotions that arise and must be overcome:

  • Fear - Once one recognizes a survival situation, one of the initial reactions noted is fear. It is said to be a perfectly normal reaction; however, fear is pictured as the enemy - the "mind killer," that can drastically lessen ability to make clear decisions. This, in turn, is said to lessen the chances for survival. In an effort to minimize one's fears, it is suggested to train in realistic situations to condition oneself to have a "hard-wired" positive approach to setting survival priorities and getting busy meeting them. This trained reaction can instill confidence that one can overcome fear and do what must be done. As one example, individuals with a phobia of insects, the outside, the darkness, etc. will need to work to overcome these fears enough to perform survival tasks and meet their survival needs, such as gathering firewood in a wilderness setting and sleeping in such a setting.

  • Anxiety – Typically, anxiety and fear appear to run hand-in-hand. Anxiety may start as an uneasy feeling in the pit of one's stomach, but by the time the fears are added into the mix, anxiety may quickly spiral out of control. Anxiety will often take over the mind and quickly make it difficult to make rational decisions. Anxiety is portrayed as a serious barrier to focusing on the tasks at hand. It is noted that, typically, once some of the critical survival needs have been met, anxiety will be easier to keep at bay.

  • Panic - We are warned that if fear and anxiety are left unchecked, panic will set in. Panic will lead to impulsive actions and loss of self control and may lead to dire consequences, including death.

  • Anger – One can imagine that it is, more or less, inevitable that in a survival situation there will be problems. With the endless possibilities of things that can go wrong and probably will, it is not surprising to read a prediction that tempers may flare in such a context. But anger, it is said to sap one’s energy, rationality, and will to live. Finding other ways to channel this emotion into constructive work will, whether in a long or short term survival situation, seems more useful to the commentators than losing one's temper.

  • Depression – An overall sense of depression is noted as common in wilderness survival situations, especially if alone. Overwhelming depression is said to lead to the body shutting down, and not unlike anxiety, causing one to give up hope. Staying positive and staying constructively busy is suggested to combat depression. It seems that while humans are physically trying to improve their lives, by means of building a fire, making shelter, gathering water or food, there is less tendency to become depressed.

  • Guilt – Often accompanying a survival situation is some loss of life. Those immediately surviving, but still in peril, may feel guilt, we are told, both due to taking responsibility for the death(s) or from a sense of guilt simply because they are alive and the other person is dead. This is called survivor's guilt. The commentator's note that such a state of mind should be combated by maintaining a positive outlook, and possibly using religion to help deal with the pain following another's death.

  • Boredom and Loneliness – An often unanticipated side effect of being in a survival situation, boredom and loneliness are both said to contribute to lowering morale. The commentators suggest that it is important that the survivor keep his or her mind busy and spirits up.

Survival manuals

A survival manual is a book used as reference in situations where a human's survival is threatened - expected or unexpected. Typically it will cover both preparation and guidance for dealing with eventualities.

There are many different types of survival manuals, but most have a section of standard advice. These are sometimes republished for public distribution: for example the SAS Survival Handbook, United States Army Survival Manual (FM 21-76) and United States Air Force Survival Manual (AF 64-4).

Other manuals have been written for more specific uses, such as wilderness or maritime survival.

Much of today's teaching principles on survival are derived from the work of SAS Survival Instructor Lofty Wiseman.

See also


  1. United States Army. Field Manual 21-76 (Survival). Online copy retrieved from [1] on 23 September 2008
  2. Wilderness Survival Merit badge pamphlet, January, 2008, at 20-39
  3. United States Army, ibid.
  4. e.g., Outdoors-Magazine
  5. The Tapestry of My Happy Life, J.T. Crandall, TRT Publications, 1980 (crash of B-17 in the Pacific in WWII)
  7. BSA Wilderness Survival Merit Badge Pamphlet
  8. HowStuffWorks by Charles W. Bryant
  9. Water Balance; a Key to Cold Weather Survival by Bruce Zawalsky, Chief Instructor, BWI
  10. Army Survival Manual; Chapter 13 - Page 2
  11. U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76, also known as FM 3-05.70 May 2002 Issue; drinking water
  12. "Water Discipline" at Survival Topics
  13. USEPA
  14. Wilderness Medical Society
  15. Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources
  16. [2]
  17. US Army Survival Manual FM21-76 1998 Dorset press 9th printing ISBN 1566190223
  18. John Kallas, Ph.D., Director, Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables. Biography
  19. Wilderness Survival Merit Badge pamphlet, January, 2008, at 39,
  20. Bruce Zawalsky, Chief Instructor, BWI, Web article: What is Modern Wilderness Survival? [3]
  21. Bruce Zawalsky, Chief Instructor, BWI, Web article: What is Bushcraft?
  22. Bruce Zawalsky, Chief Instructor, BWI, Web article: What are Primitive Survival Techniques? [4]
  23. Laurence Gonzales Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why.
  24. Mayo Clinic
  25. Psychology of survival situations; seven emotions, Motley, E.B

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